Not only can the study of the history of economics teach one how to read, it can also teach us how to react to what we read.--G.J. Stigler (1969) "Does economics have a useful past?" [HT Chuck McCann]
There is a lot of truth in this analogy, but it sells the history of philosophy short as well. Chess is pursued within a fixed and determinate set of rules. These cannot be changed. But part of good philosophy (like good art) involves breaking the rules. Past philosophers may have played by various sets of rule; but sometimes we can see their projects and ideas can fruitfully (perhaps more fruitfully) be articulated in different frameworks—perhaps frameworks of which they could have had no idea—and so which can plumb their ideas to depths of which they were not aware.
[T]he history of philosophy provides a mine of ideas. The ideas are by no means dead. They have potentials which only more recent developments...can actualize. Those who know only the present of philosophy, and not the past, will never, of course, see this. That is why philosophers study the history of philosophy. --Graham Priest. [HT Cogburn at NewAPPS.]
It's always gratifying to see a fantastic philosopher extoll the virtues of the history of philosophy. As his discussion reveals, Priest's comments are not (the more common) mere polite, lip-service. Moreover, while Priest's heart is clearly (a) in the engagement with the 'potentials' of the past and (b) in show-casing how his tools can aid in articulating "fruitfully (perhaps more fruitfully)" the past, he first asserts that (c) that "the history of philosophy is interesting in its own right." As regular readers of my blogs know, I am very partial to (a) the idea that historians of philosophy can 'actualize' the past.
As Priest notes in his piece, unlike a lot of disciplines (he mentions mathematics, physics, and economics), philosophy has kept its own history in its curriculum and in many places specialization in the history of philosophy is a respectable career option within the profession.* Given the enduring impact of Kuhn's image of science, it's easy assume that the way these other disciplines organize their relationship to their disciplinary and intellectual past is normal or fully justified by experience. Given that the mores of professional philosophy have much in common with professional mathematics, physics, and, in my experience, economics, we may well come to see our engagement with our past as an aberration if we take their mores to be 'normal.' This is a non-trivial risk given the enduring temptation to turn our profession into 'scientific philosophy.'
But discarding a disciplinary past is a relatively recent phenomena in at least two of these disciplines: so, for example, leading nineteenth century physicists (Maxwell, Duhem, Boltzmann, Helmholtz, Mach, etc.) were very competent in the history of physics (and philosophy).* Through the 1960s professional economists were trained in their own history (and philosophy). This is recent enough, that many of the best, most senior economists still have a very sophisticated command of their own history and philosophy in often shocking and striking contrast to younger generations. While disciplinary decisions that lead to displacement of history within a field often take place one department at a time, they are influenced by the attitudes of trend-setting departments and figures (and external agents), which are guided, in turn, by influential, normative images of science, which are influenced by philosophy as developed within professional philosophy or within a discipline.
It's possible, of course, that Samuelson and Stigler thought that by writing the past of their own discipline and eliminating controversy over this past, they could set the agenda for its future. History then has a role in the creation of shared paradigm formation and suppression of variance in belief. (There are plenty of statements of this in Stigler's writings.) Stigler knew his Kuhn well.***
Even in Priest there are hints of Kuhn's influence in (i) the way Priest sets up the problem (privileged sciences don't have a past in their classroom) and (ii) when Priest writes that "part of good philosophy (like good art) involves breaking the rules;" (iii) the language of incompatible 'frameworks' is reminiscent of the way Carnap and Kuhn are brought together by Michael Friedman. In (ii) Priest might as well be describing the virtues of the scientific legislator who establishes a new paradigm.
A recent re-reading of Stigler's (1969) reminded me that Stigler stresses the pedagogical and cultural values of the history of economics to economics. He recognizes that in areas where progress has been slow, it may well pay to return to a thinker. But he does not appreciate the possibility of re-actualization of the past. So, when it comes to judging opportunity costs of studying the history of economics to a future professional economists, his verdict is decisively negative. And it is that verdict that has endured: "it remains the unfulfilled task of the historians of economics to show that their subject is worth its cost." (230)
It's hard to argue with success. Judged by some parameters (e.g., influence on policy, influence on public opinion, number of employed PhDs, resources available to leading practitioners, theoretical richness) professional economics has been an unqualified success since it purged its own history. But its half-century bet on technical solutions to extremely complex evidential problems have paid off less securely. Moreover, after a period of 'economic imperialism,' its main conceptual workhorses have been in visible retreat vis a vis psychological and experimental approaches and, especially, data-mining technologies. As I have argued before (recall here and here [both with lots more links], data-mining technologies have a hidden status-quo bias and so do not really advance knowledge in economic theory (understood, say, in the way that Stigler did, as comparative institutional analysis.) In fact, if data-mining becomes the main game in town, it's not obvious that there will be much of an 'economics' discipline left; economists have no comparative advantage in computer science. Of course, professional philosophy survived the cratering of demand for its graduates within religious institutions, and we now happily train ethicists and lawyers (among others), so, perhaps, economics will survive its data-mining turn as a distinct intellectual enterprise.
And, here I have found myself sliding into arm-chair sociology of science. Ironically, in that 1969 article, after quoting and commenting on Kuhn, Stigler does argue that knowledge of the history of a scientific disciplines could play a vital role in two 'sociological' projects: (1) the study of the "development of the intellectual content of the science;" (2) study of the "effects of the organization and environment of the science upon its evolution."**** It is easy to study the development in (1) and the incentives that govern (2) in isolation from each other. But one common factor/variable (or cause) in both is the dominant image of science at a given time (among practitioners and commentators). It's by studying the history of economics as both a professional philosopher as well as a kind of arm-chair sociologist, that I have become aware of the significance of the role of philosophical images of science. So, I close with a warning: if one is not cautious about the way(s) one activates and re-animates such images of science in passing them on, one may well contribute to the demise of one's most cherished disciplinary values.
*There are very wide geographical and cultural differences: west-european analytical philosophers are rarely trained in history of philosophy at all. (There are separate history of philosophy of chairs.) The status and orientation toward history of philosophy is different in Anglophone analytic and Anglophone continental, etc.
**Duhem's work in history and philosophy has eclipsed his contributions to physics.
***The 1969 paper which provides me with the epigraph to this post, is filled with extended quotations from Kuhn and the sociologist Merton. (Merton was a colleague of Stigler at Columbia, and Merton's son joined Stigler as a member of the Chicago school of economics.)
****"sociology puts its imperialistic title on this area of study only on the ground that sciences are practiced by human beings and therefore involve social behavior. In the same sense it would be possible and equally meritorious to describe as the economics of science the economic organization and evolution of a science." (223)